A Data-Driven Approach to Professional Development

In this post I would like to explore how data can be used to support key adult learning principals for professional development, including practical, problem-centered instruction and autonomy.  This supports ISTE (2011) Coaching Standard 4b: Design, develop, and implement technology rich professional learning programs that model principles of adult learning and promote digital age best practices in teaching, learning, and assessment. 

Data can inform how professional development is chosen, both in terms of need (where are students struggling?) and interest (what do teachers want to learn about?). Understanding data can make teachers aware of schoolwide needs and make them feel more invested in addressing them. Educators want practical, applicable training to help them do their jobs better. The only way “better” can truly be measured is by tracking, comparing, and understanding student learning, teacher practices, teacher satisfaction and retention, and other school and district objectives over time.  

Data to Drive Choice 

According to Knowles’ andragogy (adult learning) principles, “…because adults manage other aspects of their lives, they are capable of directing, or at least assisting in planning, their own learning” (Merriam, 2001, p. 5). Yet in research conducted by the Gates Foundation, 42% of teachers have either no or very little choice in what’s covered in their professional development, resulting in 61% of these teachers being dissatisfied with their PD (“Teachers Know Best,” 2015, p10.). 

Administrators and teacher leaders can survey teachers before training to understand what topics they are interested in, and after training to determine whether they found it effective and why. The results may clearly point to a preferred topic or format or indicate that a whole new approach may be needed.   

Identifying Key Areas of Need 

Knowles’ principles of andragogy state that the adult learner “…is problem-centered and interested in immediate application of knowledge” (Merriam, 2001, p. 5). The whole point of gathering and analyzing data should lead to identifying and fixing problems.  

For example, Saint Leo University in Florida used data from a survey of pre-service teacher preparation program alumni to completely change the program’s approach to education technology. They redesigned the curriculum to follow the TPACK framework and modeled the use of technology to support teaching and learning in all of their courses. The overhaul also included adding an education technology lab supplied with a variety of hardware and software, and digital backpacks that included a tablet, portable projector, speakers, and an interactive whiteboard that pre-service teachers brought with them in their teaching placements (“Teaching with Technology,” n.d.). Had they not asked the question in their survey, the professors and administrators at Saint Leo might never have made this important change.

Empowering Teachers 

In her article “Why Teachers Must Be Data Experts,” Jennifer Morrison (2008/2009) outlines why it is essential for teacher to feel comfortable gathering and analyzing data. In order to gain that comfort, Morrison says teachers need to: 

  • Understand that data is more than summative standardized test results 
  • View collecting data as a natural part of “…any committed teacher’s job” (p.1)  to understand more about their students and effective teaching practices 
  • Collaborate with other teachers to understand what the data reveals and “…how to build on those revelations” (p.1) 

Professional development that get teachers to that place can be a game changer.  For example, two teachers at a school in Michigan identified the need to learn how to use student outcome data. Teachers then used this training to determine future topics of professional development (“Teaching with Technology,” n.d.), potentially effecting multiple aspects of student learning at their school. 

“Teachers cannot take the lead in data mining until they pose their own simple, measurable, and relevant queries.”

Jennifer Morrison (2008/2009)

This autonomous approach to determining what questions each teacher needs to ask in his or her classroom supports Knowles’ principle of adult learning that includes the self-concept of the learner. In order to ask relevant questions, teachers need to understand themselves and what they might need to change in their teaching practice. Driving this from within rather than through external demand is much more motivating to the adult learner. 

Uniting Educators Around a Common Goal 

When data is gathered on a larger scale and shared with administrators and teachers at all levels it can prove to be a unifying force for change.  

Engaging teams of teacher leaders and administrators in analyzing and interpreting data, for example, provides them a more holistic view of the complexity of school improvement and fosters collective responsibility and accountability for student results.

Learning Forward (N.D.)

In the video below (Learning Forward, 2012), Eric Brooks, Education Program Specialist in the Arizona Department of Education describes how his department has gone from convincing schools to administer the SAI-2, a Learning Forward survey to evaluate teacher perception of professional development, to sharing the results with teachers for a unified approach to improving professional learning. Brooks also talks about the importance of sharing classroom and school-wide data with teachers and administrators across the district.  Taking a wider, collaborative view of the collection and application of data fits with adult learners need to know the why, what and how of what they learning by framing problems in a larger context.


ISTE Standards for coaches (2011). ISTE. Retrieved from: https://www.iste.org/standards/for-coaches 

Learning Forward (N.D.). Standards for professional learning: Data. Retrieved from: https://learningforward.org/standards/data/ 

Learning Forward (2012). Data standard. Video: https://youtu.be/rvfp-5hCeMk 

Merriam, S. B. (2001). Andragogy and self-directed learning: Pillars of adult learning theory. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 89.  Jossey-Bass (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.).

Morrison, J. (December 2008/January 2009). Why teachers must be data experts.  


“Standards Assessment Inventory (SAI2) Information Packet (n.d.). Learning Forward Center for Results. Retrieved from: https://sai.learningforward.org/pdfs/SAI2_Information_Guide.pdf 

Teaching with technology (n.d). National Educational Technology Plan, Office of Educational Technology. Retrieved from: https://tech.ed.gov/netp/teaching/ 

Teachers know best: Teacher’s views on professional development (2015). Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Retrieved from: https://k12education.gatesfoundation.org/resource/teachers-know-best-teachers-views-on-professional-development/ 

3 thoughts on “A Data-Driven Approach to Professional Development”

  1. From your post, I learn how data could guide teachers’ effective professional development. You make a powerful statement that understanding data can make teachers aware of schoolwide needs and make them feel more invested in addressing them. Data is important both before and after the training to determine what topics they are interested in and whether they found it effective and why. Data presents teachers’ needs, also can identify and fix problems. Thank you for your sharing.

  2. Bridget,
    You are able to capture the “WHY” behind data collection not just for the K-12 classroom, but for all learning communities as a system to give purpose to what is being taught. Your focus on the need for applicable opportunities to grow and apply knowledge, demonstrate your core values around the importance of respecting the time we ask of others in the classroom and professional development space. Your post takes away the fear of data- drive instruction by outlining how to utilize, empower and dare I say celebrate within the grows and glows.

  3. Terrific post! Data is such a powerful tool if used in the correct way. My school has a Tableau server that is available to faculty. However, all of the data currently captured in this service is for tuition and enrollment purposes. It would be incredibly useful to get data about professional development in such a service and allow access to all school administrators and faculty. As you state, this is only the technology side of the problem of using data to improve professional development. There is still the issue of actually collecting the data. To date, I have never been asked about what I need/want for professional development in the future. I have also never been given the opportunity to provide feedback on professional development that I have taken in the past. Clearly, there’s work to be done here!

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